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Separated by distance, united for justice

Rural Organizing Project unites residents for social justice work


It takes a village to advocate for social justice and human dignity, and in rural areas of the state, it might even take a little more.

That’s why the Rural Organizing Project was formed in 1991 in Scappoose.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Walidah Imarisha gives a talk in Scappoose during an Oregon Black History tour she did in rural communities. Imarisha partnered with the Rural Organizing Project, which was founded in Scappoose.The ROP is a nonprofit organization that facilitates community organizing to address political and social issues across Oregon.

ROP founder Marcy Westerling started the organization as a response to Oregon Citizens Alliance, a conservative Christian political activist organization that pushed for anti-gay legislation in the early 1990s.

OCA is now defunct, but ROP is still in place, partnering with organizations like its sister group, Columbia County Citizens for Human Dignity as well as Oregon Humanities and others.

“ROP serves as a network. We connect groups together, we start groups where people want to start groups,” Cara Shufelt, director of ROP’s Scappoose office, said. ROP aims to equip less-populated areas with the tools to engage in meaningful activism.

“There are many people in rural communities that have deep values around dignity, humanity and social justice,” Shufelt noted. “Rural communities are in need of support to engage in social justice work.”

RURAL ORGANIZING PROJECT PHOTO - Elaine Nussbaum and Dave Powers hold signs during a demonstration in Scappoose to show support and solidarity with the residents of Harney County and the Burns Paiute Tribe during the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. In January, ROP helped residents in Scappoose organize a demonstration along Highway 30 to show solidarity and support for the Burns Paiute Tribe and residents frustrated by the occupation and standoff by a militia group at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns.

This month, ROP sponsored a lecture from author, activist and educator, Walidah Imarisha, on racial inequality and Oregon’s history of discrimination laws.

An audience peppered the auditorium at Scappoose High School on Saturday, April 16, one of six stops Imarisha made in rural cities across the state to give her talk, “Why Aren’t There More Black People in Oregon?”

She touched on the experiences of African Americans in Oregon, which is classified by some as racial trauma equivalent to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Imarisha has been giving the talk for the past five years and facilitated hundreds of programs focusing on Oregon’s history of race, identity and power.

Most demonstrations and protests are recorded in larger cities with central gathering areas, but rural areas, like Columbia County, can play a significant role.

“So much of some of the most courageous racial justice work that I’ve seen has come from rural areas,” Imarisha told her audience in Scappoose.

Rural areas are often underfunded and lack the resources of their urban counterparts, Imarisha noted, yet “often face some of the most overt and violent racist pushback.”

She points to an instance during her Oregon Black History rural tour, where participants in Cottage Grove were reportedly surveilled, harassed and threatened, according to ROP.

Despite some opposition, she noted the response to the tour has been overwhelmingly positive.

“I believe this shows how hungry folks are for information around these histories, and how much people want to have conversations about racial justice,” Imarisha stated in a follow up email. “It also speaks I think to how few places there are to get that information or have those conversations, which is why the work of organizations like Rural Organizing Project doing racial justice work in rural areas is so important.”